Nature Red in Tooth and Claw

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How many times in your life have you heard the words, “Dante’s Inferno”? How many times “Dante’s Paradiso”? I’m guessing the ratio leans heavily toward Inferno.

How familiar with those two works are you? This isn’t a Literature test. I’m just guessing that if you’re familiar with either, it’s probably the Nine Circles of Hell. And I’m willing to bet the Nine Circles of Heaven are a complete mystery.

It’s not just you, Inferno has been the subject of plays, movies, even a video game. By comparison, Paradiso is shunned.

And it’s not just Dante. William Blake said of Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, “The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of angels and God and at liberty when of Devils and Hell is because he was a true poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.”

It doesn’t take a poet to realize that writing about hell is easy, “at liberty,” and writing about heaven is difficult, “in fetters.”

I believe there’s a key to human nature and human history in that dichotomy. Our race’s origins are in savagery, “nature red in tooth and claw.” Civilization is something we build despite it. Nobility is something we strive for. We work to be better individuals, we labor at it, because selfishness, fear, and hatred are so easy. We strive to transcend our animal nature.

I’m vegan. I’m not asking you to be. But I’m weary of hearing the line, “It’s only natural for humans to eat meat.” Of course. I know as well as you that for our race, killing and eating other animals is natural. No argument there.

It’s natural.

But is it necessary?

Help I’m Concise

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The song, “Help I’m Alive” by Metric is a piece of minimalist genius.

At first glance, it seems simply sparse, in keeping with the moment of panic we feel before stepping on stage. “If I tremble, they’re gonna eat me alive. If I stumble, they’re gonna eat me alive.” So few words to capture so much terror.

“Can’t you hear my heart beating like a hammer. / Beating like a hammer. / Beating like a hammer. / Beating like a hammer.” That repetition itself is a pulse, with a sparsity casting me back to the breathless “animal in a cage” inability to think beyond the moment before the mike goes live.

But here are the words of minimalist lyrical genius that have been flowing around my brain cavity since first hearing the song: “Hard to be soft, tough to be tender.”

I’m a poet by nature. (Game design is formalist poetry.) And I find myself stunned at the perfection of those eight words. Where do I start?

First, each phrase takes two utterly contradictory words and melds them into a singular truth. That accomplishment alone fills me with wonder. Especially given that they’re simple one-syllable words.

One-syllable except for the last, intentional, two-syllable word. Listen to the rhythm of the line, the one-syllable “soft” forcing a caesura that makes you hear each phrase as independent. Then the two-syllable “tender” leading rhythmically to the next line.

And grammatically the phrases are identical. An open oyster shell.

Beyond all that, there’s the poetic consonance and assonance of those four adjectives. “Soft” and “tough” are virtually mirror images.

Just, wow.

Until today, I’d been so captivated by that line that I missed how structurally parallel the next one is: “Come take / my pulse, / the pace / is on a runaway train.” Those pulsing iambs. The one-vowel-sound difference between “pulse” and “pace.” The fluidity of the last phrase with its trio of “n’s.’

This is minimalism. A glass of water so clear you notice neither glass nor water in the act of drinking.

This is the difference between brevity and concision. The division between short and art.

And it’s why I so hate the catchall phrase, “rules lite,” in game design.

No Word for the Future

steampunk typewriter
Photo by Johnny Briggs on Unsplash
When I started college in 1985 (at 29 years old), we still used typewriters. It having started as a teaching school, we got a computer writing lab early on, in 1986, and I used the machines pretty much like a typewriter, drafting first by hand, until a pressing deadline forced me to discover the liberation of composing onscreen. So long typewriter!

We used WordPerfect on PCs.

Later that year, when I landed a job at GDW, we used MS Word on Macs. At home I had a PC, also using Word. I just found it more satisfying than WordPerfect.

When I moved to TSR, they gave me a choice: DOS PC with WordPerfect, or Mac with MS Word. I lied and said I didn’t know DOS (despite digging into PC innards at home). Just so I could keep using Word.

For the past 20 plus years I’ve continued using Word daily, absorbing its shortcuts, doing obscure search-and-replace functions, manipulating its layout options, and publishing to PDF for both etext and print.

Lately, though, I’ve become unfaithful to this long relationship. Drafting in Google Docs is sooo much more convenient. (Not tied to any one machine or OS, I can even access drafts by phone!) Scribus (open source) does a better job of layout, and can export to PDF/X1-a (a necessity for DriveThru/Lightning Source). And though a Microsoft 365 subscription isn’t terribly expensive, I could buy a big-ticket boardgame with that money instead.

Admittedly, it’s a bittersweet parting. So many memories wrapped up in those three and a half decades of MS Word. It’s time to go our separate ways. But we’ll always have Paris.

A Tale of Chromebook Disassembly

Defective battery, too
I’ve reached a point in life where I prefer to spend my hours writing, publishing, or even doing home repair, rather than learning yet another software program or fixing laptops.

That wasn’t always the case. In 1997, I was desperate for a job of any sort in publishing. My kids couldn’t handle a move to Seattle, where TSR staff had gone, leaving no steady work for a game designer.

A friend who was leaving a tech writing job in Chicago (to accompany his significant other, a TSR staffer going to WotC) recommended I apply for his position, saying I’d be a shoe in, and that he thought I could ask for a $20k salary. So I sent my resume and scheduled an interview.

The day of the interview was a series of disasters. Though I left home with a half hour to spare, my car broke down on the highway about 10 miles short of Chicago, I had to walk to a payphone, called just about the time the interview would start, to tell them I was waiting for a tow truck. My friend left work to come get me.

So I arrived hot, sweaty, and definitely short on confidence. The job was as a technical writer for a half-dozen programmers, to turn their documentation into readable instruction manuals. I had the tech writing training, and I had some personal experience dealing with the innards of personal computers, so I knew I could handle the work.

“Do you know any coding? HTML? Javascript?” No. Neither did the guy I was replacing. But the interviewer looked disappointed.

“What salary are you looking for?” I answered what my friend had said, $20k, and the interviewer looked stunned at the audacity, though he covered it pretty well. The interview was over. Needless to say, they never called me back. I vowed I’d never go to another interview without some Web coding knowledge.

To pay for milk and bread, I took a minimum wage job soldering horn parts, while still applying to publishers. One Saturday, two days before my health insurance kicked in, I agreed to some overtime at the horn factory, slipped on ice walking to work, and broke my ankle. Yet more depressing medical debt.

Still, I had scheduled an interview for later that week, with a small, family-owned educational publishing house. I showed up in sweat pants to accommodate my cast, expecting another disastrous experience. But they hired me then and there on a provisional status, I suspect out of pity. It was a six-week gig for a project that kept getting delayed another week, so they kept giving me other work to fill in, until I finally just quit asking each Friday whether to show up on Monday. The salary was $25k. A good six years went by on that six-week project before they finally remembered to have me sign an official full-time contract.

But I digress. One of the duties they asked me to take on, about six months in, was to handle the company’s presence on the new-fangled World Wide Web. “I don’t know coding,” I said. “You’re the most tech savvy guy on staff, we know you can handle it, and we’ll pay for whatever classes you need. We’ll even pay for half your homework hours.”

So I dug in. HTML. CSS. Javascript. SQL. ColdFusion. PHP. Linux and Microsoft servers. A bit of PERL just to shut up guys online who sneered at those things as “not real programming.”

At the time, outputting HTML to PDF was virtually unheard of, but I’d learned a trick from contacts at a startup in LA. So my employer put me in charge of beginning an epublishing department before epublishing was a thing. On a trip to the Houghton-Mifflin branch that published our books, I accidentally saved them from a $6 million investment in what they had thought was proprietary software for that HTML to PDF trick. (Didn’t think to ask for a cut.)

Part of my enthusiasm with the tech was the knowledge itself; part was that vow to never again apply to a job without it.

Now I’m retired. My interviewing days are over. The Web is no longer the Wild West of code. I’m not getting paid to learn more. And I’m pretty sick of disassembling and repairing or upgrading laptops. Which explains why I’ve been self-publishing with Word as a layout program since 1999. I’ve been dragging my feet about getting an actual layout program, despite having some experience with InDesign from that old job. But to print through Lightning Source now requires PDF/X-1a, which Word can’t manage.

Sitting here, leg propped up post surgery, I can’t work at my desk. I’ve been using a Chromebook in my lap to mirror the PC, to do Scribus and LibreOffice tutorials, so as to dump MS Office altogether. But to do even that, I first had to fix the Chromebook’s malfunctioning touchpad. So here I am, feeling a shadow of that old tech fun, from opening up a machine today to mess with ribbon cables and hardware, and mastering some new software.

Learn or die.

Mainly though, now I can get back to work on the good half-dozen writing projects waiting in the queue.

Publish or perish.